Suzan-Lori Parks Comes to A.C.T.

Friday, April 27, 2018

By Simon Hodgson

Suzan-Lori Parks reached down to the black case beside her chair and took out her guitar. “It’s about listening in,” she said, gesturing with her free hand. On the 8th floor of A.C.T.’s administrative offices at 30 Grant Avenue, three dozen young actors from the M.F.A. Program leaned in, watching the strings, waiting for the notes. Slowly, the playwright and songwriter of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) started a steady rhythm, light and even. 

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and A.C.T. Dramaturg Michael Paller with actors from A.C.T.'s M.F.A. Program.
Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
“When I was in rehearsal for Father Comes Home,” she said, fingers still strumming the strings, “I was playing the musician [the role currently played by Bay Area musician Martin Luther McCoy at The Geary]. I was watching Odyssey Dog and thinking, ‘What am I hearing?’” She mimed a dog’s back paw reaching up to scratch its ear, then changed the guitar rhythm to an uptempo beat. A moment later, the students’ smiles broadened, as Parks added verses to the guitar notes in an impromptu performance that ended in cheers.

The playwright met with A.C.T.’s student actors as part of Conservatory Hour, one of several opportunities throughout the M.F.A. Program academic year when these budding theater-makers can ask questions of professionals, from actors to directors to playwrights. “What do you look for in actors when you’re in readings?” asked second-year actor Caleb Lewis. “When is it time,” said graduating actor Oliver Shirley, “to stop rewriting?” “What are your rituals in your writing process?” asked second-year performer Ash Malloy.
Playwright and songwriter Suzan-Lori Parks and A.C.T. Dramaturg Michael Paller.
Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
In responding to the young theater-makers, Parks was generous, insightful, animated, self-deprecating, funny, and charismatic. She offered advice on acting (“I like actors who can listen to the work on the page”), on writing (put a timer on for 20 minutes and write until it goes off, then repeat), and on creating stories that go against the norm (“stick to your guns”). She also related the story of her own moment of inspiration when, as a college short-story writer, she was advised by James Baldwin to try playwriting. “Because he was James Baldwin,” she said with a smile, “I started writing a play that day.”

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) runs through May 20 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about playwright Suzan-Lori Parks? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

A Homecoming: The First Rehearsal of A.C.T.'s Father Comes Home from the Wars

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

When the cast and creative team of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) flew in to San Francisco from Yale Repertory Theatre last week, their meet and greet at A.C.T. was more like a reunion than a first rehearsal. In a case of life imitating art, A.C.T. and Yale Rep’s co-production of Suzan-Lori Parks's Father Comes Home—beginning performances tomorrow at The Geary Theater—is a homecoming story not just for the characters in the play, but also for the artists involved.

(From L to R) Julian Elijah Martinez, Michael J. Asberry, James Udom, Kadeem Ali Harris, Liz Diamond, Carey Perloff, Britney Frazier, Martin Luther McCoy, Eboni Flowers, and Gregory Wallace at the first San Francisco rehearsal of A.C.T. and Yale Repertory Theatre's 2018 production of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
Actors Steven Anthony Jones (The Oldest Old Man) and Gregory Wallace (Odyssey Dog), who were both a part of A.C.T.’s core acting company for several years, were reunited with their old stomping ground. For director Liz Diamond, this production has been an opportunity to collaborate with her longtime friend A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and to return to Suzan-Lori Parks’s work. “I spent many of my formative years as a theater artist working with Suzan-Lori Parks,” said Diamond at the first rehearsal, “To come back to her work after a hiatus of nearly 20 years to work on this masterpiece of hers is a singular joy.”

The idea for A.C.T. and Yale Rep to team up arose when Perloff was guest lecturing Diamond's class at Yale School of Drama. One of Diamond’s directing students asked Perloff if there were any productions she wished she could produce at A.C.T. “I said, ‘I desperately want to do Suzan-Lori’s Father Comes Home from the Wars, but I can’t figure out how to make it work—it’s big and expensive,” Perloff recalled. Also in the room was Yale Repertory Theatre Artistic Director James Bundy. Just as Perloff mentioned the play’s name, Diamond shot a look at Bundy. “I had pitched that show six ways to sundown at Yale Rep and it was an extraordinary coincidence that James happened to wander into the room at that moment,” said Diamond. “When Carey made this declaration, I said ‘I want to do it—we’ll produce it together!’ And then it went from never to when can we start?” 

Among all the familiar names are two fresh faces—James Udom, an actor graduating from Yale School of Drama's M.F.A. Program, is playing the lead role of Hero, an enslaved man who is forced to choose between his freedom and his family. Similarly, Kadeem Ali Harris, a third-year actor in A.C.T.'s M.F.A. Program, is understudying Udom's role as well as many others. Both A.C.T. and Yale Rep work closely with their graduate acting programs, a point Diamond was keen to make. “Part of this journey is about supporting the next generation of American theater-makers," said Diamond. “It’s brilliant to be bringing these two great American theaters together.”  

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) begins at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater April 25. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about A.C.T.’s production of Father Comes Home? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Rewriting the Narrative: How Vietgone Reclaims Vietnamese Representation

Friday, April 20, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

From Platoon (1986) to the Rambo series (1982–2008) to Miss Saigon (1989), “the main protagonist is always a white guy going to Vietnam and [the] Vietnamese are the bad guys being shot at or they are the people who need saving,” said playwright Qui Nguyen in a 2016 Rolling Stone interview. So Nguyen created Vietgone as an antidote to the “white savior” tale. Its characters are proudly Vietnamese and fully capable of saving themselves. By giving his characters dimension and agency, Nguyen attempts to reclaim how Vietnamese people have been represented on stage and screen, and makes them the heroes of their own story.

Tong (Janelle Chu) flirts with Quang (James Seol)
in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Vietgone. Photo by Kevin Berne.
In Miss Saigon, “Vietnam is a place not worth saving, and America is a holy grail worth killing and dying for,” writes journalist Diep Tran in her American Theatre magazine article “I Am Miss Saigon, and I Hate It.” The protagonist of the musical, Vietnamese bargirl Kim, kills herself so that the father of her child—an American G.I.—will take her son with him to America, suggesting that her son’s life in America would be better than one in Vietnam.

The confident, sexually liberated Tong is Nguyen’s reaction to characters like Kim. Tong is an assertive, feminist character in control of her sexuality. She enjoys casual sex with multiple men at the camp, and is uninterested in being taken care of by anyone. “I’m no Juliet waiting on no balcony,” she raps. “I can save my own kingdom, I’m a badass bitch.” 

In taking on a musical such as Miss Saigon—the most famous theatrical interpretation of the Vietnam War—Nguyen strives to change the Vietnamese narrative that Americans think they know so well. By inverting stereotypes and using American forms, Nguyen breaks down the boundaries between his American audience and the Vietnamese characters onstage. He doesn’t just want Americans to listen to the characters’ story, he wants his audience to empathize with them.

Nguyen’s use of American storytelling techniques is also a reflection of his own identity as a Vietnamese American playwright. Vietgone is not only a Vietnamese story—it’s also a Vietnamese American story, and its embrace of both cultures makes it accessible to a wider audience. Non-Asian American theatergoers can identify with an unfamiliar perspective through Vietgone’s storytelling forms and emotional poignancy, while Asian American audiences can feel uplifted by representation that empowers instead of belittling.

Quang (James Seol) fights Redneck Biker (Jomar Tagatac)
in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Vietgone. Photo by Kevin Berne.
In an interview with American Theatre magazine, Nguyen spoke about the power of representation: “Everyone deserves a chance to see themselves onstage. With Vietgone, I wanted to address the huge lack of sexually powerful, driven, and complex Asian-American male and female characters on our stages. I wanted to see a sexy Asian male and a sexy Asian female be sexy for something other than being ‘exotic.’ And I wanted to make something that a young ‘yella’ kid could see and feel proud of themselves after seeing it.” Since the play’s 2015 world premiere, audiences of all ages and backgrounds from across the country have responded to Nguyen’s storytelling on an emotional level. “I remember a specific email I received,” said Nguyen, “during the South Coast Rep run of Vietgone from someone who wrote, ‘As an Asian-American kid, it feels like the world keeps telling me that I’m supposed to be weak. But when I saw Vietgone, it made me feel strong.’ That’s the heartbeat of why I do what I do.”

Vietgone has been extended and now runs through April 29 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the storytelling techniques in Vietgone? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Wearing Many Hats: The A.C.T. Fellowship Project 2018

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

For over six months, 13 young theater artists from various departments of A.C.T.’s Fellowship Program have come together to produce not one, but two plays in a project that will culminate in performances this week. Running April 19–22 at A.C.T.’s Costume Shop, the production features the work of Obie Award–winning playwrights Caryl Churchill and José Rivera with Far Away and Brainpeople, respectively. Both these plays tackle war, fear, and oppression through a dystopian lens, speaking volumes about the world we live in today. In celebration of this project marking the fifth consecutive year of the Fellowship Project, we spoke to some of this year's fellows about their experiences.

The 2017–18 A.C.T. Fellows involved in The A.C.T. Fellowship Project 2018. Photo by Allie Moss.
Nora Zahn (Director of Far Away): Being a part of this project from beginning to end has taught me a ton, especially when it comes to all the tiny details that go into making a production happen at an institutional theater! From changing the smallest phrases in fundraising letters to figuring out the exact coffee-to-water ratio to dye muslin, the sheer attention that has gone into each individual part of this process has been pretty mind-boggling. What an opportunity it has been to work with a badass group of largely women artists on a play as wild as Caryl Churchill's Far Away!

Nailah Harper-Malveaux (Director of Brainpeople): I feel incredibly humbled to work on this show with my three dope queens [Brainpeople actors Laura Espino, Andrea Guidry, and Jeunée Simon]! We are tackling a beast of a play. It's a joy and a challenge to work on Rivera's language and bring his words to life because there is such an incredible poeticism to them. The script is so meaty—we all just wish we had more time to chew on it! 

Costume Designer Bree Dills, directors Nora Zahn and Nailah Harper-Malveaux,
Production Manager Spencer Jorgensen, and Assistant Production Manager Olga Korolev
at the first rehearsal of the A.C.T. Fellowship Project 2018. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
Miranda Ashland (Marketing Manager, Far Away Ensemble Member): I’ve taken a huge step in my understanding of how to market a show–or, in this case, two shows. Not only have I built on the knowledge I've learned from my time as a fellow, but I gained new skills through this project.

Far Away ensemble members Laura Espino, Andrea Guidry, Jeunée Simon, Rachel Stuart,
Taylor Steinbeck, Miranda Ashland, and director Nora Zahn in rehearsal. Photo by Mia Carey.
Rachel Stuart (Fundraising Manager, Far Away Ensemble Member): It felt so amazing to exceed our fundraising goal by thousands of dollars. Everyone was so helpful and I definitely learned a lot about raising money for a not-for-profit theater in managing my first campaign. While I'm happy we have extra funds to funnel into our show, my favorite part of this project has been collaborating with all the different departments. It's been fun getting to interact with fellows I normally don't get to work with. 

Bree Willard (Set, Prop, Projection, Graphic Designer): Wearing many hats in this project has given me insight into what it takes to problem solve for the different parts of a production. I've been able to use the visual design skills I’ve developed as the Graphics Fellow and apply them practically. 

Set and prop designer Bree Willard making papier-mâché mannequin heads. Photo by Miranda Ashland.
Mia Carey (Stage Manager, General Manager): It has been extremely rewarding to be deeply involved with these shows from the beginning—when they were just an idea—to now, when I am able to help run them every night.

The fellows involved with this year's project are: Miranda Ashland, Mia Carey, Tessanella DeFrisco, Bree Dills, Ilyssa Ernsteen, Nailah Harper-Malveaux, Spencer Jorgensen, Olga Korolev, Lealani Drew Manuta, Taylor Steinbeck, Rachel Stuart, Bree Willard, and Nora Zahn.

Far Away and Brainpeople run April 19–22 at The Costume Shop, 1117 Market Street. Tickets are free to the public, but require a reservation. Click here to reserve your tickets. For more about A.C.T.’s Fellowship Program, click here.

From Hip-Hop to Martial Arts: An Interview with Vietgone and Begets Playwright Qui Nguyen Part Two

Friday, April 13, 2018

By Michael Paller

Growing up in Arkansas with Vietnamese refugee parents, Qui Nguyen loved hip-hop, action movies, and comic books. So when he began writing plays, he filled them with these passions: martial arts in Begets: Fall of a High School Ronin, superheroes in Men of Steel, and zombies in Alice in Slasherland. Many of these works were written for Nguyen’s Obie Award–winning “geek theater” company, Vampire Cowboys. We caught up with Nguyen in anticipation of his takeover of A.C.T.'s Strand Theater this upcoming week—Vietgone is playing in The Rembe and Begets is playing in The Rueff—to talk to the man behind the work. This is Part Two.

Artwork for A.C.T's Young Conservatory production of Begets: Fall of a High School Ronin. 
In a moment when the issue of refugees is more charged and divisive than it’s been for generations, what do you hope an audience might take away from Vietgone?
Politics can quickly dehumanize people, while the goal of art, stories, and plays is to remind people of our humanity. I want to remind people that refugees are people. They’re not terrorists or rapists. Most of them, if not all, are just people trying to escape a situation in which they’re victims. Like my parents, they aren’t running to this country for a better job, they’re coming because it’s life and death.  

Were there other Vietnamese American kids in your neighborhood growing up? Did you feel like an outsider?

It was me, my brothers, and another Asian family who lived across town. They were Chinese, the Tams, and we became close friends, but because they lived across town I hardly ever saw them. I didn’t know that I was experiencing more or less racism than other kids. It was my childhood and I didn’t know anything different. From my perspective, everyone got shit. The Black kid got shit for being Black, the Asian kid got it for being Asian, the fat kid got it for being fat, the pretty girl got it for being slutty.

We’re also doing your play Begets: Fall of a High School Ronin with the Young Conservatory starting April 17. What might we learn about you or your work by seeing the two plays side by side?

I like fights! And I tend to write with a lot of slang. Artistically, I look at the world in very different colors. I try to find a fun angle for everything. I can write realism but I don’t really like doing it, especially in theater. I like to move an audience but also to have fun with them. So a lot of my shows, especially the Vampire Cowboys ones, are about having a party. By seeing these two shows side by side, you’ll get a pretty good picture of who I am as an artist.

The Young Conservatory’s production of Begets: Fall of a High School Ronin begins performances April 17 at The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Vietgone has been extended and now runs through April 29 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about playwright Qui Nguyen? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Taking Up Space: An Interview with A.C.T. Community Member Cheri Miller

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

While A.C.T. was founded on three pillars—dynamic productions, actor training, and community engagement—the last of those keystones often merits more celebration. Cheri Miller is a Detroit-born, San Francisco–based performer who acted in A.C.T.’s Education & Community Programs’ 2016 collaborative production, Crack. Rumble. Fly.: The Bayview Studies Project. After working for more than a decade in a series of different industries, Miller fell in love with acting and first got involved with A.C.T. in 2013. A tireless advocate of theater arts and social justice, Miller is a great example of a theater-maker using her talent and passion to create. We sat down with Miller to talk about taking chances, taking classes, and taking up space. 

Cheri Miller in A.C.T.'s Every 28 Hours: Black Arts Festival 2018.
Photo by Jay Yamada
Why did you decide to get so involved with A.C.T.?

When I made my stage debut in 2013 on the A.C.T. Stage Coach for Juneteenth, I remember Tyrone Davis [the former A.C.T. Community Artistic Director] saying, “You’re family now.” When people say that, you don’t really take it as truth, but I do feel that way. I feel like theater is my family and A.C.T. is my family.

You’re currently taking Margo Hall’s Studio A.C.T. class Performing Women’s Voices. How has that been?

We just had our first class last Monday and I feel like a changed woman already. I’m not the same person after spending one evening with Margo Hall—I’m so much better! It’s just a good space to be in. Theater is my home. It’s where I feel whole. It’s where I feel joy—and the excitement doesn't have to be contained. It’s like, “Let it out! Let’s use that!”

You’ve performed in Every 28 Hours for two years now. What have those experiences been like for you?

It was important to us as performers to be aware that the stories we were telling are true. We’re living them. We’re walking in them. We’re grieving them. We wanted to speak the truth of what is happening.

I recently went to the protest in Sacramento for Stephon Clark, and Uncle Bobby—Oscar Grant’s uncle—was there and he recognized me from Every 28 Hours. He gave me the greatest hug. I think because of all the lives that we represented and honored, he felt connected to me. The work meant something.

Cheri Miller performing in A.C.T.’s Education & Community Programs’ 2016 collaborative
production, Crack. Rumble. Fly.: The Bayview Studies Project. Photo by Elizabeth Brodersen.
How has your life changed since becoming an actor?

I had stage fright for most of my life. In the sixth or seventh grade, I was in a Thanksgiving play as Tom Tom Turkey and I was so scared, I forgot all my lines. I never dared to go onstage after that. I tried to make myself invisible and worked hard to not take up too much space. But there’s such a freedom in taking up space and using all the space allotted to us. Since discovering this newfound talent I have, the trajectory of who I am has changed. I’m getting to know myself and express myself in new ways. I’m looking forward to continuing to grow. I want to do everything and anything that stretches me, helps me, and helps someone else. I never want to let go of performing—it took me so long to find it!

To learn more about the opportunities our Education & Community Programs have to offer, please click here. To find out about classes in the spring and summer sessions of Studio A.C.T., click here.

The Fusion of Physics and Theater in Simon Stephens's Heisenberg

Friday, April 6, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman

At first glance, science and theater may seem like chalk and cheese. These two fields, however, have been intimately connected for centuries. As Renaissance scientists such as Galileo, Copernicus, and da Vinci were discovering new aspects of our world, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century playwrights were referencing these discoveries in their works.

Sarah Grace Wilson as Georgie Burns and James Carpenter
as Alex Priest in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Heisenberg.
Photo by Kevin Berne.
The protagonist of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus embraces the Renaissance spirit of scientific exploration to his own detriment, and Subtle, one of the three conmen in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, relies on the cutting-edge (and spurious) science of alchemy—transforming base metals into gold—to trick the wealthy Sir Epicure Mammon. Since these early depictions of science and scientists onstage, playwrights have used the latest scientific innovations as metaphors, a means of investigating life’s big questions, such as “how we know what we know, how identity is constructed, what the ethical choice is in an immoral situation, what our responsibility is in our deployment of knowledge, [and] how we can know ourselves and each other,” says Oxford University professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr. Similar to Marlowe and Jonson, playwright Simon Stephens employs science, specifically physics, as a metaphor to investigate the intricacies of human nature and the messiness of our modern lives.

In Heisenberg, Stephens uses Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to explore the levels of uncertainty in a relationship. No matter how much you might watch someone, he or she will inevitably do something that surprises you. “If you watch something closely enough you realize you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there,” says Georgie. “If you pay attention to where it’s going or how fast it’s moving you stop watching it properly. I watched Jason [Georgie’s son] all the time. He took me completely by surprise.”

Today, it seems like every week brings news of another scientific study, another experiment, another branch of research. Each new scientific advancement provides greater insight into the nuances of human nature, our relationships and interactions, and the world that we inhabit. And with each discovery, playwrights gain another metaphor for exploring every facet of what it is to be a human being.

A.C.T.'s production of Heisenberg ends this Sunday, April 8 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the science behind Heisenberg? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

Found in Translation: How Language Works in Qui Nguyen's Vietgone

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck 

Like many Americans, Vietgone playwright Qui Nguyen grew up watching Hollywood Vietnam War films such as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, but he struggled to identify with the Vietnamese characters because of how they were written. The characters often speak in an accented, pidgin English that is used either as a joke, or to exoticize them. In Full Metal Jacket, American soldiers Private Joker and Private Rafterman are approached by a Da Nang sex worker, played by Anglo Chinese actress Papillon Soo Soo. She convinces the men to pay for her services by saying, “Me so horny. Me love you long time.” This line has since become engrained in American pop culture, referenced in television series including Family Guy and South Park, and sampled in the rap hits 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny” and Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” The depiction of Vietnamese characters in this way is damaging because they are presented as alien—caricatures with which audiences are not intended to empathize.

Quang (James Seol) speaks with Captain Chambers (Jomar Tagatac) through his translator (Cindy Im)
aboard the USS Midway in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Vietgone. Photo by Kevin Berne.
From the very first scene in Vietgone, Nguyen sets out to rewrite the ways in which Vietnamese characters have previously been scripted. He does this initially through embracing contemporary language.

PLAYWRIGHT: And though they are Vietnamese—born and raised there—for the
 purposes of this tale, it is to be noted that this will be their speaking syntax:

TONG: Yo, what’s up, white people?

QUANG: Any of you fly ladies wanna get up on my “Quang Wang”?

PLAYWRIGHT: Which is the opposite of this one:

ASIAN GIRL: Herro! Prease to be meeting you! I so Asian!

ASIAN GUY: Fly lice! Fly lice! Who rikey eating fly lice?

Tong, Quang, and the rest of the Vietnamese characters in Vietgone speak like many young Americans—they curse, reference pop culture, and use slang. This enables them to express their thoughts and emotions in a way that is not only complex and relatable, but also less tied to stereotyping.

Bobby (Jomar Tagatac) flirts with Tong (Jenelle Chu) in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Vietgone. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Nguyen further subverts our expectations by making the American characters incomprehensible. While the Vietnamese characters express themselves through note-perfect American English, the American characters can only spout gibberish in the form of American clichés: “Whoop whoop, fist bump. Mozzarella sticks, tater tot, french fry.” This line from Captain Chambers aboard the USS Midway emphasizes the idea that filling dialogue with stereotypical language sounds ridiculous and demeaning. And when the American characters attempt to speak Vietnamese, they sound like the Vietnamese characters in Vietnam War films. Tong’s American admirer, Bobby, declares his feelings for her by bumbling, “Seeing you for first time was love in sight first.” By writing the Americans as “foreign-sounding,” Nguyen drives his audience’s sympathies toward the more familiar-sounding Vietnamese immigrants. Though their circumstances may make the Vietnamese characters feel powerless, Nguyen’s linguistic choices grant them the power to communicate their struggles to an American audience. It is their story that we hear.

Vietgone has been extended and now runs through April 29 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the storytelling techniques in Vietgone? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.
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